'I just fell into a media job'... but what's going to keep you in it?

Editor: ‘I just fell into a media job’… but what’s going to keep you in it?
Opinion: 100% Media 0% Nonsense

The myth of the young media entrepreneur has never been stronger at precisely the time when we need collaboration and experience to make the industry stronger for the longer-term.


Ask anyone in media how they got into this business and they will usually say, “it’s funny, you know, I just kind of fell into it.”

No one grows up wanting to be a media agency boss, media strategist, or ad salesperson. They seem to be victims of chance: “a mate called me up and said what about ad sales?” or “I just sprayed and prayed on Guardian Jobs and they were the first one to call me back”.

Media is likely all the stronger for attracting people who didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to do from a young age. I’m rather suspicious of people who are super confident from when they were a child of what they should be doing — who or what influenced them? Are they capable to changing their mind or has the stubbornness become pathological? Will they truly ever be happy in life by being obsessed with reaching external goals?

And yet the dithering dilettante is a much less compelling story than the brash, young, single-minded entrepreneur who bends the world to their will, becomes a raging success and rewrites the corporate rulebook. The rather nasty caricatures we are fed of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs makes us wonder “doesn’t it take a bit of psychopathy to be a success in this day and age?”

No. These are exceptional stories about people who, while undoubtedly talented, also benefited from a huge amount of luck. We can’t all be as talented and lucky, and yet the myth of the successful wunderkind entrepreneur persists as the digital media system continues to expand and grow around us.

The data suggests the opposite. Most successful companies are founded by, on average, people aged 45, Harvard Business Review reported in 2018, and yet “When we analysed founders who have won TechCrunch awards over the last decade, the average age at the time of founding was just 31.”

This makes sense: it takes time to develop the experience, economic security and contacts to make it worthwhile to take on the considerable risk of setting up a business. And yet you hear time and again how companies in our world are struggling to hire because people with necessary skills want to “make it on their own”.

I was reminded of this while reading about Friday’s announcement that an agency founded by two young men is buying another agency founded by a very young man.

“Approximately half of Social Chain’s people are 27 and under, as are over a quarter at Brave Bison,” the press release gushed. Social Chain was founded nine years ago by then 18-year-old Steven Bartlett, a prolific media personality with a popular podcast and a regular BBC gig on Dragon’s Den. Brave Bison, meanwhile, was founded by two brothers aged 31 and 28, which means they are, the PR explains, “in keeping with the youth and dynamism of the company”.

Presumably when older brother Oli turns 40 he will be obsolete and archived? Unluckily for him the advertising charity NABS has sold off its retirement home, so who knows what future lies in store for an industry that is increasingly platform-centric, people-agnostic, and worsening what many have been calling a talent crisis in our sector.

Is it really all about you?

The numbers make for grim reading. The amount of people working in advertising and marketing has fallen by 14% while average salaries in the sector have fallen by 4% for advertising and 10% for marketing.

This is despite adspend increasing by 42% over the last decade. What we’ve seen in recent years is a transfer of economic value from people to platforms. Virtually all of the growth in media has come from advertising spend flowing towards automated platforms, includes ones operated by Google, Meta (né Facebook) and Amazon. TikTok is just a different flavour of the same media product we have come to know for the last 15 years, but because it’s new there is economic value in having a specialism. Once everyone catches up and becomes a specialist in TikTok video creation and marketing strategy, that value disappears, i.e., it’s only ever a short-term strategy.

In other words, just the sort of platform owners that companies like Social Chain and Brave Bison are paid by advertisers to create marketing strategies for. It’s not that being “young” is a virtue in itself; what is creating market value for these companies is having an army of “digital natives” who have become experts in manipulating short-term digital structures and algorithms. How you treat fellow people and understand consumers’ true wants and needs, the soft skills of media sales and marketing, are not as in-demand as skills.

The worry is that this is creating a workplace culture in which people wouldn’t want to “fall into” and stay for very long. For example, this endless hand-wringing about hybrid working is only ever talked about in individualistic terms: “It costs me too time and money to take the train”; “The office is too noisy”; “I can do the laundry during my lunch break”.

I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’m a huge benefit to my team while working at home every day” or “I can be a great ambassador for my company by working at home every day”.

It seems that we’ve lost sight of the fact that most of us work in teams and therefore we have obligations to one another. All the office has ever been is a place for teams to come together, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that no matter how many drinks trolleys or ping pong tables we shove into them in a desperate attempt to turn workplaces into college rec rooms.

“Our industry is made of people. It’s all we have,” Advertising Association president Allessandra Bellini told the trade body’s recent LEAD conference, where it announced a plan to “advertise advertising” in order to get more people interested in advertising and media careers. Incidentally, The Media Leader is proud to be a partner in the AA’s Talent Task Force and regular readers will now that tackling the talent crisis is one of our three editorial priorities for 2023, along with media sustainability and media trust.

I’m no adman, but I’d start off the brief for this campaign by asking the question: we have an industry fully of talented people who fell into it — what’s going to keep them here?


Omar Oakes is editor of The Media Leader and 100% Media 0% Nonsense is a weekly column about the state of media and advertising. Make sure you sign up to our our daily UK newsletter to get this column in your inbox every Monday.

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